Hockey is on hiatus for a few days here in the Hub, as the NHL's All-Star festivities head south for Raleigh, North Carolina. It wasn't that long ago that south was the general direction of the Bruins' season, until a recent course correction.
Perhaps you've been locked in a daze by the depressing weather and/or the rueful demise of the Patriots, or you're just a pucks passer-by. In that case you may not have noticed that your Boston Bruins go into the break as one of the hottest teams in the NHL.Kudos to Claude Julien and Co., who wrapped up game No. 50 last night with a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers. They stand at 28-15-7, good for 63 points, first-place in the erstwhile Adams Division and third-place in the Eastern Conference. No one is saying it's time to clear the calendar in June and fuel up the Duck Boats, but it was just about five weeks ago that there were calls for Julien's head and this Bruins' season of great expectations appeared headed for the Black and Gold dustbin.
In hockey terms, the Bruins' shot at being Cup contenders has been redirected.
Since the nadir of their season, a 3-0 home loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 20 that marked their fourth defeat in five skates, the Bruins have beared down to go 11-4-3. Fans and media begged the Bruins for a response, for a sign this wasn't more of the same old Black and Fold. They apparently got the message and have sent one of their own.
From the outside looking in, it's hard to pinpoint one specific move or instance that got the Bruins' season back on track. It's been obvious that since he got less than a ringing endorsement from club president Cam Neely that Julien has approached his work behind the bench with more of an open mind.
There has been more shuffling of lines, more emphasis on pushing forward and a more entertaining product. During this 18-game stretch the Bruins have scored six or more goals five times. That doesn't suddenly make them the mid-eighties Edmonton Oilers, but in the previous 32 it happened just once.
The comparison numbers are skewed by the absence of the concussed Sidney Crosby (karma perhaps for Matt Cooke), but the Bruins are tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for sixth in the NHL in goals per game (3.02). That's a far cry from last season when the team's goal droughts conjured up visions of John Steinbeck's dust bowl.
The Bruins' leading goal scorer last year was Marco Sturm, who had 22 in 76 games. Milan Lucic, who fought finger surgery and a nagging high ankle sprain that limited his production last season, netted his 20th goal of the season last night in his 47th game.
Lucic is finally starting to resemble the Cam Neely knockoff the Bruins believed they had when they inked him to a big contract. Looch has more goals at the All-Star break than Alex Ovechkin (19).
Patrice Bergeron (16 goals and 24 assists on the season) has been piling up the points recently and has been the team's most reliable player night in and night out. The Bruins appear to have a find in mighty-mite Brad Marchand, a pest of a player who has become a fan favorite for his persistent, high-energy output. Despite a broken nose, AHL call-up Steve Kampfer has emerged as a pretty fair replica of the ever-elusive puck-moving defenseman the Bruins are eternally searching for.
Imagine how good this team would be good with a healthy and fully functional Marc Savard, who is one of the league's top playmakers when he's right. The sad plight of Savard, who is out indefinitely after suffering another concussion in Colorado, is the only blemish on a feel-good last few weeks for the Bruins.
The team must act as if Savard is hors de hockey for the rest of season, and if he is able to return and return to form treat it as a bonus. In retrospect his rush back for the playoffs last spring seems like it was a mistake.
The best part of the Bruins' season-rescuing renaissance is that they haven't had to sell their defensive souls for more goals. Yes, there was the 7-6 shootout loss to Buffalo and a 7-5 win over the Flyers, but they are still in their customary spot among the most miserly outfits in the league. The Bruins are allowing a league-low 2.14 goals per game, thanks in large part to the stellar play of soon-to-be 37-year-old goalie Tim Thomas.
Written off after a hip injury and the emergence of Tuukka Rask relegated him to a reserve role last season, Thomas is making a strong bid to add another Vezina Trophy to his top shelf. Thomas is sporting a league-leading 1.81 goals against average and a sterling .945 save percentage.
If the last five weeks have taught us anything it's that you can't earmark the outcome of a season based on a sample of games. Through 50 games the Bruins look a lot better than they did after the first 32, but they still have 32 to go. Late next month they start a brutal six-game road trip that takes them to Long Island, Ottawa (twice), Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton.
Fortunes can change fast in the NHL, and the Bruins have fooled their fans before with false promise.
But give the Bruins their deserved due. Instead of falling and not getting up they recovered from a rough patch of the regular season and showed that underneath the Spoked-Bs sweaters this team has some heart.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.